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Letters From Copenhagen

Photograph by Richard Gould

Police and Thieves

Having biked with the protesters, drank with the locals, and trained in a battalion to fight riot police, Mike Deri Smith sums up the clusterfail that was Copenhagen.

The U.N. adopted Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as its unofficial anthem for the climate conference. Dylan sings, “Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world … Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’.”

As the conference began, it felt like world leaders weren’t listening. And it felt too cold for rain. I continued to readjust layers, and clothes lost in the movement between bars, flats, bodegas, and cafes—a jacket, gloves, hat, and scarf—were replaced by warmer reincarnations of themselves.

News from the climate summit flooded in from the first day, providing frequent whiplashes of optimism and pessimism, all day long. Negotiations seemed like a runthrough of a pre-rehearsed play in which arbiters had no space to use a little artistic license and world leaders were told to stick to the script when it’s time for their monologues to be delivered.

Daylight came six hours at a time: Late nights and late mornings became the norm for me, so I saw even less. Cycling into the day and seeing the western sky turn orange at 2:30 in the afternoon was off-putting, and I felt perpetually behind schedule. I made up for the lack of sunlight by eating bags of oranges.

After a few weeks enjoying all things hygge (the almost-untranslatable Danish word for feelings of coziness, familiarity, and the warmth of friends), it seemed more important by the day. As the roads froze and bikes skidded on salt, people sought extra comfort at home. Hygge is born when the weather changes: heat rather than light drawing moths to the flame.

The hotel-ferry I slept on for the duration of the conference hummed like a distant sea, droned like a wind slowed and stretched. There was no sunlight in the cabin—darkness of the lowest pitch. Not setting an alarm? You’ll sleep until lunchtime. The darkness made the search for light and for fire even more appealing.


* * *

I come to Copenhagen too late to get a pass for the actual negotiations, but I learn that I’m not missing much: NGOs protest, press conferences are held, and all the real fun happens in the back rooms behind closed doors, occasionally leaked to much clamor and wild speculation.

Klimaforum provides “the global civil society counterpart to the U.N. Conference.” Even with a map, it takes 25 minutes to find it when it should take two. The conference shares a lobby with a leisure center. Wet children filter through from the swimming pool. It’s underwhelming. As I order a salami sandwich at the food counter, the person behind me suggests that “vegetarian sandwiches are more popular here.” Infuriating.

The conference shares a lobby with a leisure center. Wet children filter through from the swimming pool. It’s underwhelming.So I head to Hopenhagen Live!, a futurama of heated glass cabins situated in the city’s main square that surrounds a giant white sphere. The cabins contain solutions for cutting emissions: The Copenhagen Wheel is a M.I.T.-produced wheel that turns a bicycle into a hybrid E-Bike that collects pollution data, powers the bike, and makes cycling even more appetizing. Then there’s a miniature boat running on natural gas, double the efficiency of current megatankers. London sends an electronic police car to represent its efforts. A women walks between cabins handing out fake currency, a trillion-dollar bill that shares a gospel message.

Denmark’s own financial crisis, after the issue of bad notes in 1813, led to a cultural golden age of philosophy (producing Søren Kierkegaard) and the arts. This should be a comfort any time stocks on the Nasdaq or the Copenhagen Stock Exchange descend steeply. But the climate has no such cyclical resilience, at least not on a time frame our species will live to appreciate.

In Kierkegaard’s time, controversy and dissent were completely off-limits, with cultural life centering on the values of tranquility and domesticity. Harmony was preserved above all—something now reflected in hygge. Then, hygge was something only the elites could enjoy; much of the population endured poverty. Now climate change will hit the poorest hardest.

Having eaten little in the previous few weeks due to the inordinate cost of food, I feast on sushi with friends. The fish is wonderful—not warming, but filling. We watch Danish director Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ; it’s chilling, not cozy or hygge-ish. Brutal violence, a foxhole, and a child falling slowly from a window through snowflakes will not be forgotten quickly. This is uhygge, scary in Danish: scary movies, war, things unrecognizable.


* * *

I wake late on the Saturday of the first week for the big protest march, a half-time show that works well for the world’s media, who are likely frustrated by the lack of news. Snow is forecast, but the afternoon I wake into is beautiful and clear, calming a hangover born during many games of dice. A gradually tiring orange sun reveals the city’s gilt edges, too often buried under a cloudy gray. I cycle right into the sun for 10 minutes, blinded, enjoying the faint glow, even though the trip takes me in the wrong direction entirely. I turn back and, though I don’t feel the sun on my coat, the city is gilded, powerful, and alive. The church spire in Christianshavn, across the river from the parliament, is actually golden—blinding and resplendent. Similarly impressive are the four smoke stacks bellowing in unison behind it, but little love is given to their poisonous presence here.

When we arrive at the compound and are let in through the gate, a helicopter buzzes above and briefly shines a spotlight down.Having found the protest march, I stand for an hour as it slowly passes: lively and fresh-faced, the demonstrators are walking to a beat of The Clash and Faithless, blasting from trailers carrying DJs. Polar bears, cows, and lambs walk past, people dressed to encourage veganism. Signs like “System Change not Climate Change” read to me as, “Though it’s an unfeasible and abstract demand, let’s first deal with System Change, not Climate Change.”

At a modern art museum the previous week I saw a video by Mircea Cantor, who gives 25 people big mirrors on poles and films them marching through Tirana, Albania. It reflects a certain emptiness of slogans but also shares a powerful message: The problem is the person you see in the mirror, and the solution is the person you see in the mirror. Focusing in tightly on the mirrors that bend and twist, you are disoriented by the film, not knowing where the protesters end and where the mirrors, with their warped vision of reality, begin.


* * *

My plans for a bike marathon—seeing all the tourist sights I’d neglected, as well as all of Copenhagen’s outer boroughs and suburbs—are buried by freezing temperatures and snow that lasts longer each day. I console myself on the Wednesday of the conference’s second week by attending a training session for an event to create a Bike Bloc for a protest, described by organizers as “swarms of revolution, fast flowing, converging and diverging, opening space.” Bike Bloc will be part of the protest set for the day when high-level ministers arrive to nail down negotiations; the bikers plan to be the wheeled contingent of a big movement to get into or near the conference center and hold a people’s assembly.

I arrive at the rendevous point for the training session as heavy snow falls, making my multiple layers hulking and wet. I’m late, but some Lithuanians take me into their midst and we are led to a second location. This one is more secret, but the police are obviously taking notice: When we arrive at the compound and are let in through the gate, a helicopter buzzes above and briefly shines a spotlight down.

We pow-wow, the 200 or so people there on bikes in a big circle. We form groups and name them. Despite planning varying levels of direct confrontation with police, names are calm and bird-like: Swallow, Puffin, etc. I suggest Spokenhagen (too long) and Thunder (too aggressive) and Condor (bird-like, but too aggressive). So we become Little Bird: weakest biker gang ever.

Having stood there for over an hour and chosen roles (I take Forward Scout), I’ve learned little except how to be get really cold in Copenhagen. We’re promised that practicing “the Horse” move will warm us up. Half the group takes the role of riot police, the other half protesters on bikes. We are taught that when the riot-police charge, should we decide to fight the men who train every single day to put down people like us, we must drag the bike up on its hind wheel and then turn the mid-air wheel quickly to avoid the police batons. It’s incredibly confrontational, and there will never be an occasion where this unorganized bunch will find itself tidily arranged in a line (the form necessary for the move to succeed) when riot police charge.

I realize that this is too much. But escaping this compound isn’t so easy: People on bikes have already been around all the groups two or three times, sizing people up and going so far as to ask if we’re cops. In the chaos, and in the ruse of trying to keep warm, I exit the training area, pass the navigation briefing room, and slip out the gate with a nod to the guards to open it, trying to not look too much like a cop whose reconnaissance is complete.


* * *

The snow has settled inches deep, but I cycle through it, still harboring a little guilt about never showing up to the actual protest: I hope losing their Forward Scout didn’t make Little Bird look too weak. A blizzard blinds me for a few seconds every so often, as snow is blown from car roofs into my face. In the center of Copenhagen, an ice sculpture of a polar bear tops a plinth. The snow has given it a new coat, the climate is not helping to slowly melt it as was intended: The snow gives texture to its translucent body.

Maybe, with the bureaucracies of 192 countries coming together, lead by more than 100 heads of states, we are inevitably doomed.Negotiations are increasingly opaque, with mysterious “texts,” late-night agreements, and the arrival and speeches of high-level politicians confusing things. Despite having been here for a month, having read thousands of words every day about the conference and climate change, I’m little closer to understanding how the hell the U.N. actually makes these things happen. Maybe, amidst all the bureaucracy, it’s actually impossible to do something meaningful. Maybe, with the bureaucracies of 192 countries coming together, lead by more than 100 heads of states, we are inevitably doomed. A multi-hundred billion dollar international welfare system for polar bears isn’t an easy thing to pass. Flippant yes, but indicative of what a struggle it is.

On the final day of the conference, everyone is downbeat. No Copenhagen Protocol appears, despite Obama’s valiant efforts and success in rallying China, India, South Africa, and Brazil into an agreement which he admits in a press conference probably doesn’t involve signatures or meaningful checks to see if what is agreed upon ever happens. It’s quite useless, and though it’s better than nothing, it’s frighteningly close to nothing. I realize that Copenhagen will, for the foreseeable future, be synonymous with international clusterfail.


* * *

I return to England the day before the winter solstice, but have already planned to visit Copenhagen again when the weather is nicer. I learn that Copenhagen this year enjoyed its warmest November on record and one of its coldest Decembers. It’s a fantastically cozy place, but the locals are not hibernating from responsibility: Coziness and hygge are just their particular ways of dealing with extreme weather.

Dealing with extremes is something the world is going to have to learn, too, as we are all increasingly subjected to the uhygge: an increasing unfamiliar and scary environment that can’t be fixed by just lighting a candle.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith